Coach operators in London are having a difficult time with so many obstacles in their path. Kirsty caught up with one of the capital’s leading private coach hire businesses, Redwing Coaches, at their Herne Hill headquarters in South London, to find out how they face the day to day challenges.
Redwing Coaches was started in 1987 by Paul Campana, formerly of the now defunct Wahl Coaches and was renamed Redwing in the same year. They operated from premises in Coldharbour Lane, steadily building up the company, purchasing the current site in 1999 and becoming fully operational from there in 2000. Paul Campana retired in July 2006 and the company was bought by taxi firm Addison Lee whose aim was to make the company even bigger and better. The current Managing Directors, Paul Hockley and Nigel Taylor were told in 2013 that the company were ‘off loading’ the coaching operation; as Nigel explained, ‘when I heard at the time I kept saying, “I don’t want to be involved in a management buyout.” Paul approached me and said “what about a MBO?” I said yes!’ Five days after they took over the business in April 2013, Addison Lee was sold for £360m.
Nigel had been with the company since 1997 having previously worked for Daisy Bus in Broughton, near Scunthorpe (a service I used to use on Saturdays as a child) and Paul since 2007 as General Manager, coming from his father’s company, Reliance Travel. They took on the business as it existed, reducing the fleet from 59 to 42, and eventually to 38, having sourced a used coach sales specialist to sell a number of minibuses for them.
They retained all of the staff, although as you would expect with any businesses, there were natural losses and some drivers remained with the Globus contract that they decided not to continue with.
In March of this year, Paul and Nigel became the sole owners of Pullmanor Ltd., the holding company for Redwing. More recently, on 1 June, after many years of close partnership, they acquired Reliance Travel of Gravesend, which now operates as Redwing Coaches of North Kent. They had been essentially running the business on behalf of the Griffin family, who had previously owned Addison Lee, for around eighteen months and Paul’s father, David, who started the company with his father in the 1970s, was still employed as General Manager.
Reliance’s operation had a natural fit as they offered a lot of infill work with schools which is a key part of Redwing’s business, and despite offering a commuter service, which Redwing doesn’t, Paul is familiar with that type of operation having worked with the company before. The services offered, at the time of going to press, have remained unchanged although it is expected that both will be improved and expanded as part of an ongoing programme. A number of vehicles have already been replaced and two brand new Mercedes-Benz Tourismos joined the fleet of eighteen vehicles. The Reliance livery will be phased out in favour of Redwing’s to offer a continual corporate brand.
One of the things that Redwing’s good reputation comes from is their vehicles. They are renowned for having a high specification, modern fleet. It is currently made up primarily of Mercedes-Benz Tourismo and Scania Irizar i6 standard and executive coaches There are currently 55 in the fleet, mostly Euro5 with ten Euro6s. Two of these were the new Reliance Tourismos with the remainder being used on contract work for Evan Evans.
The oldest vehicles are two 59 plates which will be the first to be replaced as part of their ongoing upgrade programme to Euro6. Nigel is very aware of the tight time scale in place to ensure that his fleet meet the criteria for London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) which come into force in September 2020 and the vehicle replacement programme will have to be ‘fast-tracked’ rather more quickly than would have been necessary had the ULEZ not been introduced. He intimated that the Euro6s are likely to be Mercedes-Benz Tourismos as that is their ‘vehicle of choice’ and they have forged a strong relationship with both the company and General Manager, Jonathan Prime., however, he said that the i6s were often preferred and requested by clients, ‘they like the styling of them.’
Financial restraints following the acquisition of Reliance Travel means that the coaches are now on a five-year cycle although Nigel was keen to stress that the finance companies Lombard and Mercedes-Benz Finance had been’ brilliant during the takeover’. Previously, vehicles reaching the grand age of three would be updated, although as Nigel added, ‘they are better built these days so five years isn’t a problem and they are well looked after’.
Herne Hill is where all vehicle maintenance, repairs and bodywork take place for the three sites (as well as the Gravesend depot they also have another storage facility at Wandsworth.) They are ATF registered and MOTs are performed in house by VOSA Inspectors and they are very proud of their 100% pass rate. Four vehicles can be housed within the workshop at any one time in addition to one in the paint shop. They also have their own vehicle washer on site and refuelling station. I asked Nigel whether they had hedged on fuel and he advised that they had been fortunate enough not to have fallen foul as some operators did once the fuel prices fell.
At the time of my visit there were three vehicles in the workshops; one was in for a replacement windscreen and another two for scheduled maintenance. All of the coaches are on a four week service cycle, enough to keep the nine garage staff busy. Mechanics are on call to deal with any problems they have, not only to their vehicles, but those of their agents and it isn’t unusual for them to help out other operators. As Paul explained, ‘Fortunately a lot of problems these days are computerised so it’s a lot simpler to fix them. Sometimes it’s just a case of re-setting a button.’
They have also achieved 100% on their VOSA audit (an additional third party auditor commented that they had never seen one before) in addition, when subjected to OCRS inspections, they have always come out green, which is the lowest risk category. Nigel commented, ‘Our vehicles are our marketing, they look good because we take a pride in them.’
The livery was updated in 2013 as part of a rebrand and was done in house. The concept was for something cleaner, more modern and practical. They found previously that having a livery spanning across the bottom panels makes upkeep more expensive and time consuming.
All vehicles are fitted with a tracking system and CCTV, so in the event of an accident they can immediately see what happened and who was at fault to hopefully avoid any false claims. This is a hugely time consuming but necessary job and Nigel gave a number of examples where the system had confuted injury claims as well as having highlighting driver incompetence, resulting in their immediate dismissal. They have looked at the option of introducing a telematics system which would draw attention to any bad driver behaviour, but they don’t feel that this is something that they will progress with in the immediate future. Great care is taken in the employment selection of drivers and their training is something that they are passionate about.
Driver CPC training has always been done in house although Paul explained that they are looking to outsource this and offer ongoing module training. New drivers spend a day learning about the operation and how the yard works before having a couple of hours with the General Manager and some one to one time with Paul. This will often be refreshing them on legal requirements, such as the driver hours. Paul likes to make time for the drivers and as a self confessed ‘morning person’ he is often on site when they arrive for their shifts, giving him the opportunity to converse with them.
A ‘Driver of the month’ scheme has been introduced and the monthly winner not only receives £100 but is also featured on their website and social media. Staff morale is something that they actively try to promote and will always pass on any compliments made by their customers. When away on tours, they always insist that the client books a minimum of a three star, private, en-suite room with evening meal for the driver. Nigel and Paul are aware of some of the conditions that drivers are expected to endure particularly on skiing trips, ‘The drivers know that on a lot of the school skiing trips, they may have to share a room. If they enjoy skiing and get the chance to get out on the slopes, they will often sacrifice the sleeping arrangements, but we would make sure that they know.’
As is prevalent across the industry, finding the right drivers is problematic, although their turnover is low. Some drivers have been with them for twenty years, others have even retired and come back! As Nigel explained, ‘Trying to encourage new, younger people in to the industry is hard. This has been the worst year in terms of finding drivers.’ It’s the usual story of the wages not being high enough and people not wanting to work unsociable hours. He went on to say, ‘Driver sickness has been particularly bad and more and more want time off in the summer, which of course is our busiest period.’
They currently employ 59 drivers, 42 at Herne Hill and 17 at Gravesend. Nigel believes that being surrounded by bus depots is a particular disadvantage, because although there is no shortage of drivers, experience has taught him that the crossover between the two often doesn’t work because they generally don’t seem to have the same people skills and work ethic, although he went on to say that some can adapt. He explained how, on numerous occasions, people haven’t turned up for interviews or even their first day and hadn’t been courteous enough to inform him; additionally, there were those that had turned up for interviews unprepared, wearing casual clothes.
The presentation of the driver is as important as the presentation of the vehicle and all drivers are provided with a uniform of a smart grey suit from Brook Taverner, teamed with a crisp white shirt. This was something that Paul introduced. It is this attention to detail that has earned them their reputation and the contracts that they have. This includes being the sole contractor to one of London’s longest established and largest sightseeing operators, Evan Evans, part of the Trafalgar Group and Redwing’s biggest client.
They no longer operate tours and day trips themselves although they previously ran their own day trips to France under the Consort Campana brand which folded before Nigel and Paul took over. When pressed about the coach tourism industry, Paul commented that it was ‘a very tough industry to be in.’ We spoke about operators pulling out of Europe because they can’t compete with all-inclusive cruise deals but did say that with the recent events in Tunisia and risks to other foreign holidays, people might be more inclined to stay in the UK. Whether that will mean an uptake in coaching holidays remains to be seen.
The core of their business is private hire and their ethos is ‘We will go anywhere. We are ready whenever you want, wherever you want.’ Much of their business comes from schools and they work with a number of private and independent education establishments including Queen’s Gate School for Girls, in Kensington and Dulwich College, a day and boarding school for boys.
They also work with some of London’s best hotels, offering concierge services and have a number of Japanese agents. They get a lot of repeat business and referrals. I asked them both what makes them stand out from the others? Nigel responded by saying. ‘It is the presentation of our vehicles and our reliability, we don’t let people down and we arrive on time. Too many operators treat this as a hobby, we are a professional business with a good reputation’ Paul succinctly added, ‘We do a bloody good job! I like to think we are the best.’
The forthcoming Rugby Union World Cup will provide a lot of work this summer and one of their most high profile jobs was the contract to take Call of Duty competition winners from across Europe to Germany. The tri-axle Scania i6s used were wrapped in a CoD Advanced Warfare Xbox promotional covering, by Nick Beston of Wrap Cube, Tolworth. Unfortunately, as Nigel confirmed, ‘We had to take them off once the job had finished which was a shame because we had lots of enquiries about hiring the coaches out. Social media went mad!’
Problems facing the industry
As you would expect with any London operation, the problems facing operators are magnified. I have already touched on the pressures of ensuring that all vehicles are ready for the ULEZ being imposed in five years time. Paul is Chairman of the London Tourist Coach Operators Association (LTCOA) and the organisation had a meeting with TfL regarding Euro6. He doesn’t feel that they are getting any help at all and are just expected to upgrade the whole fleet, something that isn’t the case for taxi companies, who, Paul says, ‘have a bigger voice.’
The recent tube strike caused chaos across the city and they had to deal with a number of complaints about late running vehicles despite the fact that they were organised and left site early in anticipation of the queues. A normal 45 minute run to Heathrow took two hours. Fortunately the problems at Calais haven’t affected them.
A big bone of contention is the Cycle Superhighways, which in Paul’s opinion has ‘stuffed up the whole of London’. He referenced the one on Vauxhall Bridge that cyclists aren’t using but has caused congestion from the narrowed lanes. He feels that encouraging more cyclists in the capital will cause more accidents with bus and coaches as they pedal along the inside of them, completely oblivious to their own visibility.
Paul doesn’t feel that there is enough support for coach operators and drivers as he believes associations such as the CPT are more bus orientated. However, both Paul and Nigel were quick to praise their Crisis Control Centre at the time of a major incident that they were involved in.
On a day to day basis, the removal of coach parking bays is a real issue. Cameras are issuing automatic fines to drivers during set down and pick up and drivers are constantly worried about getting a parking ticket. The lack of places where drivers can pull up creates problems when they need to take their breaks; they risk breaking the law and being up in front of a Traffic Commissioner.
Box junctions are another source of frustration. In somewhere like London, you have to go with the flow of the traffic and assume in good faith that once you enter the junction, that flow will continue. If you erred on the side of caution and stopped every time you approached one of these road markings, there would be gridlock. It just isn’t practical and is yet another fine imposed on someone just trying to do their job. Paul commented on a driver that had essentially ‘worked for free’ one day when he had accumulated a number of fines that about equalled his day’s pay.
I asked them both about what they think the future holds and they agreed that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Paul had two years farming before joining his father and Nigel has also been in the industry for many years. He said ‘I’ve often thought I would love to do something else but can’t imagine doing it. I still get a buzz when I see our coaches, even if it’s not one of our new vehicles or the new livery.’ When asked what they would do differently, they both joked in unison, ‘not do it!’
Nigel commented ‘We keep moving on and thinking of new things to do.’ I asked what the industry needs to do to get new blood? The overwhelming response was to offer more support. Paul added, ‘You need a lot of money to do this. The industry needs to get rid of the cowboys and the coach brokers who are constantly letting people down. Too many people treat it as a hobby’ ‘It’s hard out there and we are constantly trying to compete with Northern operators who don’t have the London overheads and are able to come in cheaper than us, but we have built up a stromg reputation.’
Nigel and Paul have worked very hard to make Redwing Coaches the reputable business it is today and despite the hurdles they constantly have to overcome, they seem to have a solid business that hopefully will remain for many more years.